What happened when I ran for FIFA president (cont.)
The e-mail arrived in my general SI.com mailbox on March 2:
Dear Mr. G. Wahl,
We want to contact you with a FA!
2 smaller countries.
Want to back you up.
I have a healthy skepticism when it comes to people on the Internet who claim they can "hook you up," but as a journalist I was also curious about this F.T. García. (I have changed the name he gave me.) Even if he was a hoax, the mere fact that someone was contacting me in such a manner revealed something about the murkiness of FIFA politics.
So I called him on the European cell number he gave me. "FTG," as he came to call himself, became a constant correspondent on e-mail and the phone, contacting me several times on some days. No matter how often I asked him to explain who he was and what he did, he said he didn't want to do so. But he claimed to have ties to various figures who themselves had ties to the powerful men in FAs who (supposedly) would nominate me. A typical e-mail from FTG was this one:
Hello Mr. Grant,
1) I have contacted the Danish Lawyer who will call his friend at FA Denmark for meeting.
2) I contacted a personal friend who has close ties to Luxembourg FA. He will call me back or e-mail about meeting.
3) I contacted Dutch/Suriname Agent Mr. Xxxx Xxxxx. He has ties to Suriname FA.
4) Contacted Danish agent Mr. Xxxxx Xxxxx also for Danish FA.
When do you want to come to Paris, France?
Meetings at Embassy?
You have a Lawyer ,etc.?
I played along with FTG (to an extent), but I made sure to keep plenty of my own irons in the fire. By then, I knew I would have to persuade a federation other than U.S. Soccer to nominate me. The USSF, which has supported Blatter along with the other CONCACAF nations over the years, was bitterly disappointed by losing out to Qatar in the bid to host World Cup 2022 -- Blatter is thought to have voted for the U.S. vs. Qatar, for what it's worth -- but USSF president Sunil Gulati told me from the start that he had decided not to nominate anyone.
That left me using the means at my disposal to try to hustle some contacts inside the world's FAs. If I knew journalists in a particular country, I would e-mail them and ask if they had any contact information for their FA president. In some cases, I already knew members of various FAs' PR staffs and contacted them. And for others I simply went onto the country pages on the FIFA website, which included general e-mail addresses for all of the world's federations. You could learn some intriguing things on these pages. Burundi, for example, has a female FA president, Lydia Nsekera. (I promised to consider her for FIFA general secretary in my letter, but she still failed to reply.) Gambia's FA president may or may not be a seedy character, but he is most certainly Seedy: a guy named Seedy Kinteh, to be exact. He didn't answer either.
Indeed, most of my 120 or so e-mails to these general FA addresses disappeared into the abyss. For days I kept getting "Failure Notice" bounce-back messages from the official FIFA mailbox of the Bermuda FA. ("Failure Notice" now seems like a good title for the state of my campaign.) The Seychelles FA mailbox was full, but the automatic reply message ("Undeliverable") was probably an accurate description of its nomination. The general secretary of the Mauritania FA, Massa Diarra, replied to my letter, even if he just wanted it in French. Dominica FA head Patrick John responded to let me know his nation would be supporting Blatter. And Iceland FA president Geir Thorsteinsson called and asked for more information before eventually telling me his board had decided against nominating me. At least he denied me in an extremely polite way.
Another FA that replied was Finland, but on that one I screwed up royally. In most letters, I would write a sentence or two unique to that country before launching into the stump speech about my candidacy. But with Finland I accidentally forgot to take out this line from my letter to Denmark: "I think it would be great for Denmark -- the least corrupt country in the world according to Transparency International -- to nominate me after Blatter was nominated by the FA of Somalia (the most corrupt country in the world)." After a friendly executive assistant forwarded the e-mail to the Finnish FA heads, I discovered my error and apologized profusely. "No worries," she wrote back. "These things happen, and I want to think myself that Finland is on the same level as Denmark when it comes to corruption, despite the latest betting fraud case here." The Finns are nice people, but they still didn't want to nominate me.
Scandinavia in general was a harder sell than I expected. While I was hoping the region's reputation for transparent government might attract nomination interest, my unconventional candidacy seemed to be frowned upon by the humorless in some quarters. Lennart Johansson, 81, the Swedish former UEFA president, told Fotbollskanalen.se I was "totally unknown," "not a serious candidate" and that "the U.S. is not a superpower in football," as if that mattered. He then presumably growled, "Get off of my yard!"
England, for its part, never engaged me seriously, despite its lingering anger over receiving only two votes in an embarrassing first-round exit in the vote to host World Cup 2018. I had contact with a few England officials who said they forwarded my information to FA Chairman David Bernstein and general secretary Alex Horne, but I never heard from either of the two men directly.
All the same, I did enjoy meeting some good people over the past six weeks. Early on, I had a productive hour-long Skype conversation with Oliver Fowler, a Barcelona-based British journalist who started ChangeFIFA, an organization dedicated to reforming world soccer governance. Fowler connected me to David Larkin, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who is also part of ChangeFIFA. In late February they informed me they were in discussions with Chilean Elías Figueroa, the former three-time South American player of the year, about potentially running for FIFA president on a reform platform. Figueroa was interested. Would I be interested in working with him? I said I'd be happy to talk to Figueroa, and if our ideas were similar and he was able to get a nomination, I would endorse him and drop out of the race.
Unfortunately, though, Figueroa was never able to land his own nomination. If you're wondering how impenetrable and fear-inducing FIFA's ruling hierarchy is, imagine this: The Chilean FA refused to nominate the greatest player in its nation's history. Think about that for a second. If Figueroa couldn't do it, it shouldn't be surprising that I couldn't either.
Yet I kept trying until the deadline. Most of it was done on my own. But the mystery man F.T. García was contacting me nearly every day, sending e-mails like this one:
Georgia? It's an Obscure Country ... anti Russia!
Their ex FA president is current owner of Dutch club Vitesse.
My contact can approach him easy.
Your thoughts please?
FTG was even loopier over the phone. In one conversation on March 11, he "informed" me that:
The Morocco FA wanted to meet me at their embassy in Paris. (This never happened, and I never got any indication it was true.)
He was setting up meetings with the Georgia FA. (This never happened either.)
Pro-Blatter forces thought I was a threat using social media and were starting a "campaign" against me in Europe. (FTG's credibility was really starting to erode here.)
I might have to cast a wider net. "You have to understand the countries, the culture of paranoia," FTG said. "Maybe a smaller country can nominate you, like Brunei or Tonga. But maybe they ask for money. That's the name of the game."
On March 14, tiring of FTG's conspiracy theories, I laid it on the line to him: For a week he had been promising contacts with several FAs, but I had yet to hear from anyone other than him, and he was still refusing to explain anything about who he was. He was wasting my time, I told him, and I was done talking to him unless he provided some evidence to back up his claims -- like, say, real people. "You keep telling me about hooking me up with FAs," I said, "but I do a better job of that on my own than you do!"
That probably wasn't very nice, but it was true. At that point he had about as much credibility with me as a Nigerian e-mail scammer. I thought it would probably be our last conversation, but two days later FTG rang me in the morning. "You will start getting calls from FAs in the next 30 minutes," he said. Rolling my eyes, I said: "O.K. -- I'll keep an eye out for them!"
And then the craziest thing happened. I started getting calls. One of them came from the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. The secretary on the line (she had a Macedonia country code) gave me her name and the cell number for general secretary Igor Klimper, who she said wanted to meet me the following Monday in Paris. A few minutes later I got a call from a top official with a World Cup-winning European FA. He too wanted to meet me in Paris and asked me to send him an e-mail. He replied a few minutes later from a legitimate e-mail account from his FA. And if I needed any further confirmation that he was the real thing, I got it when I checked the caller ID number on my phone. It matched perfectly with the number that FIFA's website listed for his nation's FA headquarters.
Suddenly, amazingly, F.T. García had some credibility, even if he still wouldn't tell me who he was.